The Flipside: Zero Co's Mike Smith

Mike Smith is not your typical founder. The brains behind Zero Co, Smith’s mission is to ‘un-trash the world’. How is he seeking to do the seemingly impossible? By removing single-use plastic from your kitchen, laundry and bathroom. Still in its infancy, having launched in 2019, Zero Co has already broken records — becoming the most funded Australian Kickstarter campaign in history and having stopped more than 1 million plastic bottles ending up in landfill. It’s an incredible feat, and Smith is only just beginning.

In Episode Four of The Flipside, Her Black Book co-founders Sali Sasi and Julie Stevanja ask Smith the big questions — like, what’s it really like to undertake a massive Kickstarter Campaign, how do you pick yourself up after hearing the word “no” time and time again (hint: start a motivational wall), and where did the idea of “radical transparency” come from.

If you’re looking to start a business, becoming accustomed to hearing the word ‘no’ is an inevitability, as Smith will tell you.

When trying to get Zero Co off the ground, Smith shares that he first pitched the idea of every single investor VC fund accelerated program and private equity company that he could find. “Every single one of them said no to me,” he reflects. “It became a bit of a running joke about how I could just not get anyone to support the idea.”

It can be easy to get bogged down by the constant push back, but Smith kept going, and instead, used those ‘nos’ to motivate him. “One of the things that I did early on when I was in the pitching phase, was I grabbed a piece of paper and put it on my bedroom wall. Straight after I had a meeting, if someone gave me a no, I wrote their name on this list.”

That list would continue to motivate Smith, who became fixated on proving people wrong.

“I learnt very quickly that every single no gets you one step close to a yes. So I just kept going.”

What does it take to get your message across to everyday Australians? Find an ex-PM to go kayaking with, apparently.

In the early days of Zero Co, Smith tried the unthinkable — cold emailing former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, to see if he would be interested in going for a kayak in the name of climate action. To his surprise, Turnbull agreed. Which resulted in Zero Co’s message being broadcast across Australian televisions, with a reputable name backing his mission.

It taught Smith a valuable lesson about business; “If you don’t ask, you don’t get.”

After initially raising funds through his Kickstarter campaign, Smith had to deliver to the 7,000 households that had pre-ordered his product. The only problem? He had plans to launch as COVID was shutting down the world’s supply chains. “Everything that could possibly go wrong did go wrong during that period,” he says.

What could have eventuated in the company’s “collapse”, as Smith explains, turned out to be yet another pillar added to the brand’s core values — radical transparency.

Sparked from reading Ray Dalio’s teachings on transparency, Smith decided that instead of keeping the realities of what was happening behind-the-scenes closed off from his customers, he pushed the notion of truth. “Every week I started doing a video and an email to the 7,000 people who had pre-ordered our product, and just telling them the war-and-all reality of all the shit that was going down and all the problems we were being faced with.”

Smith quickly found, the more open he was, the more understanding people were.

“It was this moment where these first 7,000 people who initially believed in us during that year, that it took us to get the product to market, their belief and faith in us just grew tenfold because they realised that we are just everyday people and we’re making mistakes every day and we’re trying to solve a big problem and we’re coming up with the solution in real time.

“That’s been a super powerful lesson and something that we’ve continued to do every day of this business, is just be radically transparent with every single person that comes into contact with us, because we’ve got nothing to hide. And so my view is if you don’t have anything to hide, don’t hide anything at.”